Survey: Widespread support for immigration reform among pastors

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NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Protestant senior pastors in the United States want the federal government to mix justice with mercy when it comes to immigration reform.

Most say it’s the government’s job to stop people from entering the country illegally. They support reform that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country. And they believe Christians should help immigrants—no matter their legal status.

Those are among the findings of a survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors from Nashville-based LifeWay Research, conducted prior to the mid-term elections.

Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research, said pastors don’t approve of illegal immigration. But they want to help illegal immigrants make things right.

“This is one of many cases in which Christians can look at those around them and say, ‘I don’t agree with what got you to this place in life, but I will love you while you are here,’” McConnell said.

Nearly six in 10 Protestant senior pastors (58 percent) agree with the statement: “I am in favor of immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for those who are currently in the country illegally.” About a third (34 percent) disagree. Seven percent are not sure.

Most African-American pastors (80 percent) agree, as do a majority of white pastors (59 percent). Two-thirds (68 percent) of mainline pastors and more than half (54 percent) of evangelical pastors also favor a path to citizenship.

Small church pastors less likely to agree

Pastors of mid-sized churches are more likely to agree than those from small churches. Two-thirds (66 percent) of pastors of churches with between 100 and 249 attenders agree. About half (54 percent) of pastors with less than 50 people in their congregation agree.  

Two-thirds (63 percent) of pastors under age 45 favor a pathway, as do a little over half (55 percent) of those ages 45-54.

LifeWay Research also found pastors want to help their immigrant neighbors, regardless of their legal status. Caring for immigrants can be “an opportunity to show people who Jesus is,” McConnell said.

lifeway immigration nextchart425About half (47 percent) of Protestant senior pastors say their church currently helps immigrants. And most (79 percent) agree with the statement: “Christians have a responsibility to assist immigrants, even if they are in the country illegally.” One in six (17 percent) disagree.

More than three quarters of evangelical pastors (77 percent) and most mainline pastors (86 percent) agree. Most pastors under 45 (83 percent) and those in churches with 100 or more attenders (82 percent) agree.

The new study parallels the findings of a 2013 LifeWay Research survey. 

In that poll, 58 percent of pastors supported immigration reform. And about half (51 percent) said reform would help their church or denomination reach Hispanic Americans.

Other recent polls concur

Other recent polling found people in the pews have similar views to their pastors on the issue of immigration reform.

A 2014 Pew Research poll showed about two-thirds of Protestants (69 percent) support reform that would allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country if they meet certain conditions. Three-quarters of Catholics (77 percent) also support reform.

Pew also found fewer than half of Protestants (46 percent) say it is important that reform happens this year.

Protestant pastors of all kinds want the government to do a better job preventing people from entering the country illegally.

Almost nine in 10 (87 percent) agree with the statement: “The U.S. government has the responsibility to stop illegal immigration.”

Most evangelical (91 percent) and mainline pastors (82 percent) agree. Pastors in the Midwest (38 percent) are less likely to agree than pastors in the South (89 percent) and West (90 percent). Pastors under age 45 are less likely to agree (82 percent).

“Justice, love and mercy are all intrinsic to the Christian faith,” McConnell said. “It appears pastors see the need to end illegal immigration as an issue of justice. They also want to show love and mercy while the legal problem is addressed.”

Polling procedures

Researchers conducted the phone survey of Protestant pastors Sept. 11-18. The calling list was a stratified random sample drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called. Researchers weighted responses by region to reflect the population more accurately. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.1 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.

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